May 9th, 2020: Global Big Day…by bike
Every year, eBird’s Global Big Day falls either on, or slightly after, my birthday. So it’s always my birthday present to myself to make sure I get out birding for a whole day. Today was very hot by Vancouver standards, but I stuck to my plan to use only my feet, bike, and (empty) Skytrain for my transit.
Now that Common Tern and Parasitic Jaeger are starting to move through, it seemed sensible to start at Iona Island today. Specifically, the tip of the south jetty at the highest tide I could fit into my schedule.
I got to the tip a little before 8:30AM. The tide was still high enough that I could easily see out into the deeper water where Bonaparte’s Gull wings and Harbour Porpoise fins were flashing just above the waves. I did a few long scans with the scope and, as I followed some Bonies, sure enough a Parasitic Jaeger zipped into view and settled on the water. Tada! I’m always excited to see a jaeger and was happy to catch one early in migration. No luck with Common Terns today though. I could see hundreds of small birds diving into the water WAY out there in the heat haze. But I couldn’t make out enough detail to be sure any were terns and not Bonies.
During a second scan with the scope, I got a text from my friend Mel that a Brewer’s Sparrow had just shown up in Richmond! Guess where… The Iona inner ponds! All I had to do was hop back on my bike and ride the length of the jetty and I’d be there.
It was tough to walk briskly past my first Yellow-headed Blackbird of the year. But I could find them again later.
I got to the inner ponds, found the group of people, and parked myself at least 6 feet away. One of the nice things about birding in the inner ponds is that there are lots of good vantages. It wasn’t difficult to keep social distancing and get everyone a nice view of the Brewer’s Sparrow.
Brewer’s Sparrows are a light-coloured, subtly marked, and lovely looking sparrow. I first encountered one on an amazing trip to Washington State’s scablands in 2016. The area’s carved by receding glaciers, the Columbia River, and now covered in the sagebrush sea. It’s the place to go to find all your sage-y birds: Greater Sage-Grouse, Sagebrush Sparrow, Sage Thrasher. It’s also great for other fun birds like Vesper Sparrow, Burrowing Owl, Black-throated Sparrow, Ferruginous Hawk, White-headed Woodpecker, and many more.
Anyway, the only one I’d ever seen in Vancouver was also at Iona’s inner ponds a few years ago. Not too surprising that one was found here given the combination of lots of sparrows here during migration and Iona’s heavy birder traffic.
Brewer’s Sparrows epitomize the “LBJ” (“Little Brown Job”). They’ve even been called the “bird without a field mark.” This is hardly true, but it certainly feels like it if you’re a beginning birder. Add to that the ID confusion between them and Clay-colored Sparrows (especially juveniles), and they’re kind of a IDing nightmare if you’re not familiar with them. There is even a rather different-looking form of Brewer’s (called the “Timberline” Sparrow) with different markings to keep you higher on your toes.
You’d be pretty unlikely to find a “Timberline” form of Brewer’s in Vancouver (they live up in the mountains). But the one I was looking at today (the “normal” Brewer’s, if you like) would have been most at home in sagebrush. They spend their summers in sagebrush and winters in desert grasslands. And the dryness of both of those habitats isn’t a problem. Brewer’s Sparrows can go weeks without a drink! I suppose the dry grassy area I saw him in today was somewhat similar to its usual habitats and seemed like a good place to stop.
The Brewer’s was a fantastic bonus! But there was a lot more at Iona today. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since moving back from MN and a group of students he was leading on a big day. Plus, I observed 62 species in just a few hours! (I consider over 60 to be a good day at Iona.)
I also saw Red-necked Grebe, Red-throated Loon, Turkey Vulture, Cinnamon Teal, Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Purple Martin, American Pipit, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Townsend’s Warbler, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. There were a good number of waders today too: Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Sandpiper all made an appearance in the inner ponds (eBird list).
But that was enough time at Iona. I headed home for a quick lunch, then headed to my local patch: QE Park.
I’ve been to QE Park almost every day for two weeks. It’s made for particularly good birding this year. This afternoon was quieter, by which I mean louder. There were people everywhere! It felt like all of Vancouver had decided to meet friends, read, or tan at QE this afternoon. Granted it was a nice day, but how am I supposed to bird with all these people enjoying themselves in my park? I’m kidding, of course. But I wouldn’t have minded if there wasn’t a blaring stereo every 10 meters or off-leash dogs running all over the place.
It was a challenge, but I did find a few new birds for the day (eBird list). The highlights were some of the many flycatchers I’d hoped to add to my day’s list: Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Pacific-slope Flycatcher.
I was also happy to add Western Tanager, Hutton’s Vireo, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Black-headed Grosbeak to the day’s list.
I like to participate in eBird’s Global Big Day every year. This year, eBird’s Big Day statistics are pretty remarkable too. I feel a little spoiled that it’s right smack in the middle of peak migration for those of us on or near the 49th parallel. It was a great day to get out there and bird, and an even better day for having run into so many birding friends!